To be a man is to compete.
So says Grayson Perry in his fantastic book “The Descent of Man”. As a self-confessed “tranny” he is not a typical representative of masculinity. Some might even say that he is an ideal man, having escaped the confines of traditional masculinity and allowing himself to uniquely express himself.
Yet, despite his startling degree of reconstruction, he spends a significant part of the book discussing his love of mountain biking and competition, describing how he will catch up with riders in front of him, pause to get his breath back and then pass in order to better rub in his triumph. For Perry, competition is central to what it means to be a man.
Male competition is not just limited to sport. In every walk of life, men will compete, try to get one over each other and vie for status. Whatever the field, meetings, whether in the pub, over dinner or at parties are peppered with careless references to recent successes, aimed at establishing hierarchy. Any mention of the weight of lift, the distance run, the price of car, the obscure album, the successful exhibition, the tasteful picture, the piece of general knowledge, the new pair of shoes, the fancy holiday, the over performing child, the foreign language film, the bottle of wine, the crazy party, or the attractive wife/girlfriend is a chance to raise oneself above your peers. One need only consider the first question that men ask each other when they meet. “What do you do?” From the very first question, local hierarchies start to form.
This is such a universal instinct that regardless of the period or culture, we spot this competitive instinct and the consequences of coming second. We see it in Achilles’ sulking, Iago’s hatred, in Darcy’s embarrassment at his love for Lizzy. We see it in Prufrock’s shame, Jordan Belfort’s arrogance and my boasting about what I have read.
Through space and time, men have been competing with each other. Why?
The simplest answer is that it is a mating strategy. Men, according to the parental investment model, need invest fewer resources into children, making access to sexual partners key to reproductive success. This theory is held up by species in which the male party invests comparatively more resources, such as seahorses, where women become the competing sex, fighting over access to men. This theory of male sexual competition being the source of male competition is supported by the fact that men are extraordinarily good at ranking themselves against other men. Research shows that men are able to assess, with uncanny accuracy, their own fighting and upper body muscular strength against that of their peers, a mitigation strategy that avoids dangerous violence by allowing both parties to agree on who the victor of a hypothetical conflict would be.
Yet it is a cop out to end the analysis here. It is a truism that men compete over sexual partners, but crucially men compete about everything. Male intra-sexual hierarchies begin being built from early childhood and usually exist totally separate to sex as seen in the familiar image of school boys fighting over who can run the fastest, whose Dad could beat up whose Dad and who can trounce who at FIFA. Men in the modern world have learnt to compete over far more than their upper body musculature. Now, everything from salary to fashion choices may be an axis of competition and access to sexual partners is determined by pre-existing hierarchies rather sex specific competition. Male self-worth and pride, not just sex appeal is built on one’s perceived location in these hierarchies. In simple terms, the captain of the rugby team goes out with the prettiest girl not because he is her type but because his position in the local system tells him that she is his right and his confidence and pride from this position make him attractive to her.
Many readers of this might conclude that disincentivising competition would be beneficial to all. Sensitising men into avoiding harmful competition that inevitably leads to disappointment, frustration and hurt would be a boon to all. bell hooks, in her book “The Will to Change” describes the harm that intra-sexual competition has had on black, working-class men. She explains that, while white men might regard competition as a beneficial force, this is because they so often come out on top. When men are not able to compete or feel themselves ‘losers’, the effect on the men that hooks and Perry describe is de-motivation, and a seeking out of alternative, less socially beneficial avenues of competition, so called young man syndrome, including turf wars and violence against perceived insults to one’s reputation. The pain of wounded pride may be temporarily soothed by stabbing someone from a different post-code that looked at you funny.
The institutions of male competition, such as the sports team and the company have also earnt themselves a bad name as places where misogyny and anti-social behaviour flourish. Rare is the woman that does not have a horror story involving a rugby team.
Male competition also prevents men from forming strong relationships with other men. As my friend Tim pointed out, the first condition of male friendship was a mutual non aggression pact. Each party promised to respect the other’s accomplishments. A conversational SALT treaty that meant neither would try to one up the other. Just as the US and Soviet Union found, even getting to the negotiating table was a big deal and trust that the other party is negotiating in good faith is hard to come by. It is why so many men rely on friends they made years before. They are unable to build the trust necessary to open up to new men.
As tempting as a call for total abolition is, I suspect a social engineering project on this scale is doomed to fail. I would go further and argue that despite its bad rep, male competitiveness deserves to be praised for the many goods that it has delivered. The risk taking that is the requisite for status has been behind many of the great expeditions and achievements of our time. Years ago, I was lucky enough to hear Ed Stafford speak about his solo trek along the Amazon. What struck me at the time was the meaningless of his act. Stafford set out on his journey, not because he was assured of some reward at the end of it but to challenge himself and prove that he could accomplish this extraordinary feat. By challenging himself, Stafford has been responsible for raising the bar of human capacity. Stafford’s trip is an example of the most positive form of masculine competition. He defined a challenge for himself and by completing it found pride and self-worth. How many other male inventors, adventurers, leaders, artists and writers were driven by the desire to be the very best, and to stamp their name onto history?
Male competitiveness does not have to be a menace. Instead, society must help men learn how to channel their competitiveness in more pro-social ways. First of these routes for competitiveness is sport. While given a bad name by some men, competitive sport has been linked to better educational outcomes, less chance of physical and mental health problems, and increased life satisfaction. In addition, sport has been shown to reduce aggression, teach cooperation and provide positive role models. Many men find their closest friends among those that they competed with and against. Research shows time and time again that providing men with sport facilities is one of the best ways of reducing male violence and criminality
The second path is more amorphous but potentially even more transformative. Perry suggests that all men have a “Department of Masculinity” in their heads that constantly assesses whether behaviour matches up to expected standards. For Perry, this Department of Masculinity is men’s way of avoiding the disapproval of other men by pre-emptively avoiding behaviour that might be viewed as non-masculine. If men were helped to alter this, ‘hegemonic’ and un-reconstructed version of masculinity, we can imagine a world in which men compete over how involved they are with their children or how kind they are to strangers. This redefinition of what counts as a valid axis of competition will have the incidental benefit of reducing current class and racial structural biases. Differentiating between real achievement and the narrow, societally prevalent appearance of achievement is crucial to this new masculinity.
Therefore, for men to escape the tight strictures of anti-social competition, we must help men not only to change their own views of what counts as a relevant and masculine axis of competition but also to build groups of likeminded men around them, who can reinforce and support each other in their efforts to be better men. Sports coaches have long been recognised as important role models for boys who can set boys onto a path they will follow for life. A greater emphasis on the lessons boys receive about how to channel their competitiveness and its consequential victories and defeats would have a great impact on the men they grew up to become. It is important to remember, however, that any intervention will be unsuccessful unless it gives men a space where they can learn to feel pride in themselves. A Danish study showed that even small levels of family upward social mobility (a panacea against hopelessness and a source of pride) can have a big impact, drawing boys away from anti-social rebellion against a system that they feel they can’t benefit from.
Luckily, the flexibility of masculinity is one of its greatest strengths. The disappearance of heavy industry in Britain is blamed for a crisis in masculinity, just as the appearance of these machines was blamed by the Luddites as emasculating men by destroying the value of their labour. Masculinity has changed numerous times over the course of the past centuries, and it falls to men now to carry out a similar transformation by working with their peers to encourage each other and ‘compete’ to be the best men that they can be.